He came on to the strains of "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow," the anthem of his victorious campaigns of 1992 and 1996. But when the delirious applause that greeted him finally subsided, Bill Clinton made clear that tomorrow – and the Democratic party – now belongs to Barack Obama.
Beforehand, no one was sure how he would behave. The new kid on the block hadn't been showing proper respect to the Democrats' only two-term President since FDR, they said. He was still smarting over his wife's defeat, and fuming about criticism of his performance. And wasn't it Bill Clinton who warned that to give the nomination to Barack Obama would be "a roll of the dice"?
But, on Wednesday evening, amid the rapturous cheering of 4,000 convention delegates ("I love it" Bill beamed his Bubba beam at one point), the former President delivered the goods. The previous evening, Hillary had been criticised for stinting in praise of her conqueror. Bill, by contrast, mentioned Barack 15 times by name in his 15-minute speech – in the first sentence, the last sentence, and more than a dozen times between. And in case anyone missed the point, a man celebrated for improvising and ad-libbing had his speech distributed in advance and did not deviate an iota. Democrats need be nervous no longer. This Bill Clinton was 100 per cent on message.
Hillary, some had noted, had not actually declared that Barack was qualified to be President. Bill made up for the omission and then some. "Barack Obama is the man for this job." He had "a remarkable ability to inspire people", and the "intelligence and curiosity every successful president needs", as well as "a clear grasp of our foreign policy and national security challenges". In short, "Barack Obama is ready to be President of the United States."
Deftly, he drew the parallel between himself and Obama. Back in 1992, "we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and inexperienced to be President" (46 when he took office, Clinton in fact would be a year younger than a President Obama on inauguration day on January 20, 2009).
"Sound familiar?" Clinton asked. But the Republican strategy didn't work 16 years ago, because the Democrats were on the right side of history, "and it won't work in 2008 either, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history". Then Clinton gave a reminder of why he had prevailed. In six succinct mid-speech paragraphs, he demolished the Republicans more comprehensively than any speaker in Denver this week. Part finger-wagging professor, part showman loving every second of it, he mixed sorrow, anger and ridicule as he made the case against John McCain: "A good man" but one who "embraces the extremist philosophy that has defined his party for 25 years."
And now Republicans had the effrontery to seek to put another of their own in the White House. "They actually want us to reward them for the last eight years by giving them four more. Thanks, but no thanks."
Above all however, this was when a mantle of leadership was passed. The old champ still has the pretty moves. He can still mesmerise a crowd as no other, possibly even Barack Obama included. In the audience, none other than Muhammad Ali showed his approval. But in politics as in boxing, no reign lasts for ever. On Wednesday evening, Bill Clinton acknowledged that the new kid on the block was king.
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